Research on how kids learn to read has not always penetrated the teaching profession, though that’s generally no fault of the teachers: It’s that approaches to reading based on the mechanics of language don’t appear to be consistently taught in teacher-preparation programs or in early reading professional-development opportunities.
While this has been a long-standing problem, it’s entered the national agenda again ever since journalist Emily Hanford wrote a hard-hitting piece on the lack of systematic phonics instruction in the early grades.
But there’s one thing that’s changed since the last skirmish in the reading wars: The social-media revolution.
Now, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have exploded with parents, researchers, and educators advocating for a systematic approach to teaching reading. Among the most successful pushes has come from the dyslexia community: Grassroots groups like Decoding Dyslexia now claim chapters in all 50 states. And as of March 2018, 42 states have laws supporting dyslexic students that have put an emphasis on early screening for dyslexia and teaching that includes phonics instruction and phonemic awareness, according to the International Dyslexia Association.
One of the key points advocates for these approaches make is that, while phonics and phonemic awareness are mandatory for dyslexic students, they’re also best practice for teaching all students.
But what does this kind of advocacy look like on the ground? Today we’re featuring two mothers in the Tredyffrin/Easttown district in Pennsylvania who have started a local group, Everyone Reads, that has been urging their district to overhaul its literacy program. Whether you’re inspired by their work—or view them as the “crazy moms” with an axe to grind—Education Week thought readers would find it enlightening to hear about their journey from worrying about their own kids’ reading to advocating for a broad-based look at district literacy.
While parents advocating on behalf of their kids isn’t new, doing so with such a specific idea in mind of what instruction should look like is rarer.
Jamie Lynch knew nothing about the “whole language” vs. phonics debate when her son started struggling to read. As she tried to figure out what to do to help, found a lifeline when she discovered research on dyslexic students. Kate Mayer, a former elementary education teacher, came to the district with two children who struggled with reading, including one who had received an individualized education program for dyslexia. (Whole language is an approach that emphasizes learning through context and picture clues, while phonics focuses on the explicit teaching of sound-letter correspondences.)
The women’s advocacy has been a bit of a thorn in the side of their district. They’ve written several open letters asking the district to rethink its curriculum and provide more classroom-level data on reading outcomes. Some parents are really supportive, and others see this as an attack on the district (check out the comments on their latest letter). The district, for its part, says it adheres to quality instructional practices, and it’s also training a number of teachers in a longstanding reading approach that emphasizes systematic phonics and decoding.
This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Stephen Sawchuk: You both mentioned that there was this immediate sort of visceral discomfort with the word dyslexia when you approached the school about your kids’ reading problems. Why do you think that is?
Kate: I think the uncomfortableness around the word from the professionals in the school was around resources. I think that there were some directives around using the word because then if it was used, the evidence, the research shows that there’s a specific type of instruction that should be used and while they might provide that, they didn’t want to commit to providing that officially.
The telling thing that happened to me, and I think this is when I moved here and I came in with my IEPs from Wilmette (Ill.) and I put them down on the table, and I had been through a big fight to get these beautiful documents. And I just looked at everyone and I said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I just want to make sure that we’re on the same page. And before we start, I want to use the word dysgraphia and dyslexia so that we know that we’re talking about the same thing.” And the school psychologist—who was a smart lady, she knew her stuff and does a very good job in terms of her analyses—she looked at me and she said, “Mrs. Mayer, you would not want us to use the word autism if your child had autism, would you? We don’t use the word dyslexia. It doesn’t help us. We want to talk about your child individually.” And at that moment I was like, “Heck yes, I want would want you to tell me my child has autism!”
Jamie: I was asking as innocently because I had a friend in high school that I helped who was dyslexic. So it was the only thing I knew about reading that could, you know, be a problem. So I asked, “Could it be dyslexia, what is dyslexia?” And I was immediately dismissed by the reading specialist: “We do not call it that anymore.” And it was clear that there were going to be no more conversations about that. So that really, that was the impetus for me to think there was something else I needed to know. And I went home and started doing all the online research and found all the great places that had tons of information about dyslexia. [The district rejects the claim that it is uncomfortable with the term dyslexia.]
What kinds of resources did you look for and compile as you put together this group of parents that were struggling with these issues? How did you gather as much information as possible?
Kate: Well, I think that that was a journey, right? So both of us have been at this for five-plus years. And so there were several stops on the resource path and the first one was digging into all those online dyslexia resources that give you some of the evidence base, the research behind why kids respond to the type of instruction—the systematic, explicit instruction. And then as I moved through it, I started looking for communities of people who I could connect with. Because I think this is true for almost everyone who encounters a struggling reader: Every parent, there’s this isolation you feel when you find out about it because the information coming from the school is not aligning with what you’re learning outside of the school. And you’re not always aware of other people who are going through it.
As you dig deeper and you’re trying to understand the instructional piece in school, you start to encounter professional resources. That for me was an ‘aha’ moment because I was trying to reconcile the parent piece and the teacher piece, and came to the conclusion that I really had been a crappy reading teacher. And then, in the middle of the night when I was on Facebook searching for something, I encountered the Reading League. The Reading League is a group of teachers and other professionals, and they put together these videos of teachers talking about the moment they realized that they hadn’t been taught the evidence base on early reading.
When did you tumble to the conclusion that your district was using balanced literacy and that it was not particularly effective for decoding for your kids?
Jamie: The fall of 2017 for sure, because we were digging and looking and reading. Like, why isn’t this working? Why are 20 percent of our kids in general education reading support?
Kate: I was excited when we moved here because there was an actual program, and I came out of the [federal] Reading First era where we did a marriage of Open Court and Readers and Writers Workshop [respectively, a phonics-based basal reading program and a balanced-literacy program], and I was like, “Oh, we’re going to come in and there’s going to be some structure and all the teachers are going to be teaching similar things.” And I quickly learned that for my 3rd grader there was no real phonics, phonemic awareness, or structure. Even in writing. I would say that was the other piece that was really telling to me—that there was no true writing curriculum.
Once you had this body of knowledge that you hadn’t had before, how did you start looking at the specific curriculum? What was that process like?
Jamie: There was a group of teachers that came from the Mad River School district, in Ohio, and they had been teachers on assignment and were particularly interested in solving this problem. So they did a presentation on how they brought the right types of curriculum that supported all of the areas of development for readers and they talked about using this source, EdReports. So then we started looking at our curriculum on there. We found out that our curriculum is one of the [ones that was] all red [signalling a poor rating.]
Kate: It reconciled something for us, because all along the way we’re supporting parents, we’re meeting more and more parents going to meetings, all that kind of stuff. But many of the kids that we were meeting, including our own, have these discrepancies where they were super strong in terms of their comprehension and their verbal ability, but their reading skills, their decoding, encoding, phonemic awareness, were not strong. And we heard often from our administration that, you know, we can’t just give these kids this structured literacy [which is phonics-based] ‘cause they’ll all get bored. Everyone in the district will get bored. They’re too high [performing].
And when we heard Mad River talk and we heard about the content-rich curriculum, that it was an ‘aha’ moment. It was like, holy moly, all kids are given access to content and high-level text or grade-level text at the same time as they’re receiving the skill-based instruction. And it married those two things for us. And we were like, why the heck aren’t we doing this? And we thought that it would be well received because we did keep hearing this [message]: “We can’t just give them this skill stuff. It’s boring, it’s skill and drill.” And we knew intuitively from our own experience with our kids and then also from what we had researched that it really was important for all kids to get this type of instruction, and beneficial even for high [performing] kids.
Can you lay out for me the components that you have been pushing for in your district, and what the response has been so far?
Kate: So I think the letter lays it out pretty explicitly, but in general, the part that’s most important that we’ve been pushing for from the beginning is just more comprehensive training for our teachers and really good materials around that training. And I think that’s the thing we’ve gotten most pushback on. We felt from the beginning that teachers didn’t have this information and we’ve learned that it’s not part of most teacher training programs. Pennsylvania actually has a higher number of structured-literacy [teacher-preparation] programs. I think we have five programs, but we don’t have a ton of teachers who have participated in them. And so we’ve really been asking since the beginning for the administration to provide access.
We spoke about the curriculum piece. And then I think the other piece, the most important piece that we’ve pushed for is data. In the beginning we weren’t saying, “Your reading programs stinks;" we were just saying we need to look at this and we want to look at the efficacy of the reading program, and the reading-support program. And the way that we would do that is by looking at benchmark data. You know: how well the students are growing. It’s clear to us now that we are not going to see that data. It makes us concerned, very concerned.
Some teachers in your district are being trained in Orton-Gillingham, which is a traditional systematic, explicit decoding approach. So that’s good, right?
Jamie: Well, it’s good. This was not something we asked for. But it’s really good because the kids who are in special ed., needing that intervention, now have something. The teachers are in the practicum now, so it’s really new for everybody. What I understand is that the teachers are feeling really empowered about having that to be able to offer to kids. We strongly feel all the teachers really want the kids to learn.
Kate: We have in Pennsylvania our dyslexia pilot program. We have, I think, six schools participating in a districtwide program where they introduced a structured literacy into the element, into the lower grades, like K-3. They’ve trained a lot of teachers in Orton Gillingham or structured literacy for the lower grades. But what they said is if you do it in a vacuum with only a small group of people and those people are not going into the classroom, and the rest of the people have not had experience in the evidence base, understanding why it’s important and how it helps all students, you don’t get the bang for your buck. I think that’s the piece that we’re missing because this hasn’t been a cultural or a systemic change in terms of grabbing onto the evidence base and saying, yes, this is something that works for all kids. It’s still this one-at-a-time kind of approach. We know a lot of parents know their kids would benefit even in the gen.-ed. classroom.
Q: Do you ever get sort of the pushback—I think this happens a lot in well-resourced districts—the sense of, “Go away parents, we know what we’re doing, you’re too invested in this, chill out”? The whole sort of helicopter-mom pushback. Do you ever get that?
Jamie: We get that at the higher level, like the administrative level a bit. I will say, as a parent I don’t get that from any of my teachers. My teachers have always been collaborative and really interested in what I brought, even for my 5th grader when he was younger, I brought some ideas that had been recommended for intervention and the teacher was like, “I will try to find time to do that.” And she did. So it’s not that. But I do think there’s a narrative sometimes that happens about us.
Kate: I think that we do get some of that from parents who don’t know. We have different reactions from different parents and sometimes we have both reactions from the same parents, because those parents then realized, holy moly, my kid is, my kid has happening to them what you’re talking about and I need your help. And now I get it. But the folks who aren’t on board are aligned or have similar responses to the school board, in terms of: “We’re the best district in the state; how could you say this about us? And you know, our teachers are the best.” And we really try hard to, you know, share our support of the teachers. But the open letters have made it a little more tenuous, in terms of the way some parents are responding, and those are parents who don’t have struggling readers or don’t know they have struggling readers. We had one incident where someone actually responded negatively because they were selling their house and they said, “Please don’t put that stuff on your web page.”
Q: Let’s turn to some practical kinds of takeaways. What kinds of questions should be parents whose kids are having problems decoding, or just problems with early literacy, be asking? What should they be asking of their kids’ teachers and administration?
Jamie: Well, a really easy question that they could ask is for progress-monitoring data so that they could see how their kid is growing and what the protocol is that the school’s following for monitoring their kids. So many, many schools do that and they give a report and it helps them to understand what area is the struggle and then they can ask the question, how is that particular need being supported and are there more concerns? We know that in 1st grade, if you looked at a chart of numbers, that’s where like the big growth happens for most kids. And that’s also where struggling readers get really left behind.
And then the other thing is to see what local resources they can find. I mean, we find we have to [help] the parents a lot to find resources to get their kids that instruction in those areas of weakness before too much time passes. Because the later that intervention happens, it’s so much harder. And you know, in our work supporting parents, one thing that has come up is the emotional impact for kids and parents, families of kids who are anxious, who have behavior problems, who are having depression, who are having self-harming behavior, and, as they get older, that the impact of those are more challenging.
Kate: I think if I were giving a parent advice about early literacy and school, my biggest piece of advice would be to trust your gut. So you’re with your kid until they get to kindergarten. And if you notice something that just doesn’t seem right or they seem to struggle a lot of times, you’re right and the school just might not be equipped at that point to identify that need. But you can and there are there are a lot of resources outside of the school that can help you to support their early literacy skills, specifically phonemic awareness. You know, letter identification, things like that that you can do immediately, and by doing that, and even if they didn’t need it, you’re supporting them at a time where their brain is most malleable and they’ll get the biggest impact.
And you still need to work with the school to figure it out. But sometimes the different agendas or the different places that the school and the parents are coming from just aren’t aligned at that time. It’s not always right, but I think there are a lot of things that parents can do at home. If you have the behavioral problems where they’re not wanting to practice sight words when they’re 5, there probably is some curricular mismatch and you can support that at home.
Issues with early reading affect kids from all different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, but you’re in a fairly well-resourced district. So what would you say about the need for this to happen across the board?
Kate: I think that there are challenges everywhere with this issue. One thing that I think would be different for us that would be harder for districts or parents that are less funded: Gosh, we have all sorts of time. Jamie and I don’t have jobs so we’re able to dig in and spend a lot of time understanding the research. So I think having informed parents, while districts might not like it, is helpful in giving [the district] quick access to information. Underresourced districts have to get that information from other places. ... I think the difference is that parents don’t always have the information because they have other demands on their time.
Q: And then they might not be able to supplement with tutoring if they can’t afford it.
Kate: That piece I think is super important. I mean we’re trying to think about ways to support parents who in our districts can’t afford the outside help. ... In less resourced districts, what we’ve seen in terms of the curriculum is it seems like some of them are making changes and sharing data and all of those things because they have to [because of high levels of scrutiny.] We don’t have to because it looks like our district’s doing well, because we have all these high [achievers] keeping them up. And then I think for parents, the social media piece is huge. Even if you only have a few moments, if you’re on Twitter or you’re on Facebook, you can get some of this information pretty quickly. It’s pretty easily accessible.
Photo: Kate Mayer (left) and Jamie Lynch (right) pose with another mother, Wendy Brooks. Photo copyright: Emily Brunner Photography. Used with permission.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.